Agency Action, Congressional Inaction on Tech

The Capitol at night

Later this week marks the first 100 days of the 114th Congress. During that time, the Federal Communications Commission released its landmark net neutrality rules. Congress, meanwhile, hasn’t done much when it comes to tech legislation.

Policy debate in the tech sphere on Capitol Hill focused mostly on that decision from the FCC, which came in late February and classified the internet as a public utility. Republicans and internet service providers vocally opposed the move.

Much of the political bandwidth among GOP lawmakers has been consumed by the FCC’s 3-2 vote on Feb. 26, which forced a conversation about how best to navigate or push back against the new net neutrality landscape.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the new chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, used his inaugural hearing in late January to highlight draft legislation that would implement the principles of net neutrality while undercutting the FCC’s authority to broadly regulate internet policy. That proposal, which remains in draft form, has the backing of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the committee’s panel on Communications and Technology.

But not all congressional Republicans are in lock-step with that approach.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, also a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, took a more partisan approach in early March by introducing H.R. 1212, which would nullify the FCC’s net neutrality rules and prevent it from issuing similar ones. No action has been taken on that measure. Members of the Senate’s more conservative wing, such as Ted Cruz of Texas, have also raised concerns with the Thune-Upton proposal.

A bipartisan discussion of net neutrality legislation in the Senate Commerce Committee is likely to come in the summer or fall, according to Frederick Hill, a committee spokesman for Thune.

That discussion is expected to be a component of Thune’s effort to overhaul the nation’s telecomm laws. In a January 28 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Thune said he would begin an effort to upgrade the cornerstone law “in the coming months.”

“Updating the Communications Act is no small undertaking, but it would be a dereliction of duty if Congress did not at least try to modernize the law,” he said in the speech.

On the House side, Upton has been collecting white papers and expert opinions on telecomm reform as recently as January.

Cybersecurity information sharing

Lawmakers in both chambers revived efforts to pass legislation that would allow companies to share information on cyber attacks with the government in an attempt to bolster digital security.

The renewed push follows a failed attempt during the 113th Congress to get an info-sharing measure to the president’s desk because of privacy concerns.

Last month, the House Intelligence Committee approved the latest iteration, H.R. 1560, by voice vote. The Senate Intelligence Committee approved its version, S. 754, on a 14-1 vote. Both measures were amended to enhance privacy safeguards.

But the updates to the Senate measure weren’t enough to pacify Sen. Ron Wyden, the panel’s lone dissenter. The Oregon Democrat called the privacy protections “insufficient,” saying the bill is “a surveillance bill by another name.”

Banishing patent trolls

Another prominent piece of legislation that has gained bipartisan steam is H.R. 9, a bill aimed at curtailing patent trolls – firms that hold patents with the singular goal of extracting infringement damages from other companies.

Introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the legislation would make it more difficult to sue for infringement. The measure has 20 cosponsors, including nine Republicans.

The House passed similar legislation during the 113th Congress, but the measure stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

This time around, the legislation has gained momentum, with three hearings on patent reform taking place on Capitol Hill over the course of a week in March. The hearings were hosted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.

While no patent troll legislation has been introduced to the Senate, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is expected to introduce a measure.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold another hearing on the Goodlatte bill on Apr. 14.

Drone regulations fail to take off

The Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to fast track regulations to allow for the widespread commercial use of drones haven’t been enough to satisfy lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Most notably, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy told a Senate aviation subcommittee that obtaining permission for drone tests takes far longer in the U.S. than in other countries.

Still, no lawmaker has introduced legislation that would improve the rulemaking process for commercial drones.

What voters think

The dearth of legislative activity isn’t lost on voters, according to a nationwide poll conducted by Morning Consult. When asked how Congress has handled tech issues during its first 100 days, 27 percent said they don’t know or had no opinion – higher than the equivalent number for energy, health and financial issues.

For those following the tech debates, a plurality – 41 percent – said they have an unfavorable view of how Congress has performed. One in three voters had a favorable view.

In January, a Morning Consult poll found that voters said cybersecurity should be the top tech issue for Congress this year.

The next 100 days

While the first 100 days lacked any statutory deadlines requiring congressional action, the next few weeks will be the opposite. Key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire on June 1, meaning large portions of the FBI’s and NSA’s surveillance programs will be forced to shutter unless lawmakers reauthorize or reform the programs. Both chambers are scheduled to begin a 10-day recess on May 21.

Morning Consult